Diseases & Research

HIV/AIDS

Colorized electron microscopy image showing the binding of HIV-1 virions (small green particles) to a T lymphocyte (part of the cell’s cytoplasm and nucleus are shown)

Courtesy of Dr. Florian Hladik

Fred Hutch is leading the fight against HIV/AIDS through the pursuit of new and innovative prevention strategies, treatments and potential cures with active studies in the U.S., Africa, Latin America, China and Europe.  Scientists are investigating HIV at the molecular level to identify events that lead to infection and transmission while working to understand the complex relationship between HIV and the immune system to see if a vaccine can protect against transmission or control infection.

Our researchers play key roles in several large-scale networks dedicated to the elimination of HIV/AIDS including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Division of AIDS funded, HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN). Through this network and collaborations such as “defeatHIV,” Hutch researchers are leveraging the expertise of population and laboratory scientists with the same goals. The center is also home to the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention (SCHARP) which provides statistical support and data management to researchers worldwide including the HVTN, Microbicides Trial Network (MTN) and the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN).

Community engagement is important for conducting clinical trials to ensure diverse communities are respected and their cultural needs are met, and for advising researchers about the experiences of people infected and affected with HIV. Both HVTN and defeatHIV work with Community Advisory Boards (CABs); groups of study participants, activists, organizational representatives and service providers to help members of the general community understand the science of HIV/AIDS and assists researchers in the planning, implementation and the conduct of trials and studies.

A collaboration between Fred Hutch and the University of Washington (UW) enhances HIV/AIDS research efforts. Fred Hutch scientists have faculty appointments at UW in Global Health, Infectious Diseases and Laboratory Medicine and other relevant departments. These commitments provide educational opportunities and our faculty mentor the next generation of research scientists. Scholar awards are also available through the HVTN for African-American and Hispanic medical students who are interested in HIV vaccine research.

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Fast Facts

  • HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). 
  • It was first discovered in 1983. AIDS was first reported June 5, 1981 in the United States. It is now a worldwide epidemic, with more than 35 million people infected as of 2012 according to the most recent UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic.
  • A person who has HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. AIDS is diagnosed when a person's HIV infection has progressed to the point where his or her T-cell count drops below 200. (A healthy uninfected person typically has a T-cell count of 700-1200).
  • HIV attacks the body's disease-fighting white blood cells, weakening the immune system and making it very difficult for the body to fight infections. A person living with AIDS is susceptible to life-threatening infections caused by microbes that typically do not cause illness in healthy people.

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Prevention & Causes

Fred Hutch is a world-leader in research to find new HIV prevention methods and a cure for HIV:

Home of the world’s largest publicly-funded HIV vaccine trials network — Fred Hutch researchers lead the largest publicly-funded HVTN, an international collaboration dedicated to finding a safe and effective vaccine against HIV that could be used globally.  The HVTN is the largest research network devoted to preventive HIV vaccines. The network’s trial sites are located at leading research institutions across five continents. The HVTN is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Larry Corey and Executive Director Dr. Jim Kublin

One of the first HIV vaccine clinical trial sites – The Seattle Vaccine Trials Unit (VTU), one of more than 30 clinical sites for the HVTN, was one of the first sites to conduct an HIV vaccine trial. The unit, led by Dr. Julie McElrath, has worked with more than 1800 vaccine volunteers and 300 cohort volunteers to safely and effectively conduct vaccine and observational studies. A strong community relationship continues to enhance the VTU’s ability to recruitment of volunteers and educate the community about the research. Learn more »

Investigating why some people who are HIV-positive stay symptom-free — Studies at the VTU led by Drs. Julie McElrath, Jennifer Lund and colleagues are investigating why “long-term non-progressors” and “elite controllers” – the one percent of patients with HIV who can naturally control the virus without medication – are able to control their infections. The goal of this research is to gain insights that could someday identify the protective mechanism that would prevent HIV progression and improve outcomes among a much broader group of patients with HIV.  Learn more »

Understanding HIV immunology at sites of exposure – Working with volunteers, the VTU collects mucosal samples for research. These samples are taken from areas of the body that are often the first to get exposed to HIV, such as the vagina and rectum. Our scientists use these samples to better understand how the body could best fight HIV infection. This knowledge will further help in the development of a preventive HIV vaccine as well as other HIV prevention methods such as microbicides.

Testing vaccines – To accelerate the search for a preventive HIV vaccine, researchers are collaborating with academic, biotech and industry partners to better understand how natural immune responses can be enhanced by the immunity sparked by vaccines. Researchers are working to define the qualities of the human immune response to vaccines that correlate to protection from infection. This includes the study of mucous membranes to understand what might make a vaccine more effective, or how disease progression could be prevented.  Learn more »

Making HIV vulnerable to immunotherapy — Research by Dr. Julie Overbaugh and colleagues may provide important clues for designing an HIV vaccine. The researchers found that two simple mutations in a particular subtype of HIV-1 could make it vulnerable to attack by the body's immune system. These findings may form the foundation for vaccines that help the body to fight off HIV. Learn more »

Using statistics to unravel global HIV — The Hutch is home to the SCHARP. Led by Dr. Peter Gilbert, the SCHARP center provides statistical support and data management to researchers worldwide and conducts a statistical methodology and mathematical modeling research program. SCHARP also collects, manages and analyzes data from clinical trials and studies dedicated to eliminating HIV/AIDS and serves as the Statistical and Data Management Center for the HVTN, MTN and HPTN. Learn more »

Understanding HIV's ancient origins — Why are humans vulnerable to HIV today? The answer may lie in evidence of human immunity to a virus that infected chimpanzees 4 million years ago, according to research by Drs. Michael Emerman and Harmit Malik. Learn more »

Curbing the spread of HIV in women — Research led by Drs. Florian Hladik and Julie McElrath could lead to new strategies to prevent HIV transmission in women. The researchers identified two different types of immune cells in the vagina that HIV enters simultaneously. Their findings could inform prevention measures that address vaginal HIV infection. Learn more »

Developing new approaches to vaccinationDr. Ann Duerr leads innovative research to advance the search for an effective HIV vaccine. Duerr is examining whether vaccines can be more effective if they are administered through mucosal surfaces, such as the nose and mouth, instead of the blood stream. Learn more »

Dr. Ann Duerr

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Cure

Fred Hutch researchers are conducting some of the world's most advanced research on potential new HIV prevention methods and cures:

Pursuing cell and gene therapy for HIV cure – Using a $20 million National Institutes of Health grant Fred Hutch scientists are conducting research to develop cell and gene therapies for making an HIV-infected person's own immune cells resistant to HIV infection. Led by Drs. Keith Jerome and Hans-Peter Kiem, the researchers are also developing proteins that can target and disable HIV in the viral reservoirs that sustain infection in the body. More information on the team’s research and clinical studies is available at defeatHIV.

Exploring stem-cell transplantation with or without cancer - Using various types of low-dose chemotherapy combined with or without radiation, Fred Hutch researchers are exploring stem-cell transplantation as an option for a cure for people who are HIV-positive and who may or may not have cancer. Learn more about open clinical trials.

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Global Impact

Fred Hutch's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division is advancing the understanding of infectious diseases in Southern Africa and China. Below are examples of how center scientists are at the forefront of HIV research.

The Hutchinson Center Research Institute - South Africa is a nonprofit, South African entity established by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This institute includes the Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory headed by Dr. Erica Andersen-Nissen, a staff scientists from the McElrath Lab.

Stopping HIV's March – In Cape Town, South Africa, Fred Hutch staff have opened a state-of-the-art lab in 2013 that is one of Africa's most advanced scientific facilities.

The Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory (CHIL) performs validated assays on samples from clinical trial sites throughout Southern Africa. This critical data informs new HIV vaccines. The laboratory also conducts studies to better understand how the body responds to vaccinations - days, weeks or even years later.

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